By James Rick
While attending a panel on “the Culture Wars” in American history at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta, I was struck by something a fellow attendee said. As someone interested in cultural history, his comment, which concerned the influence of anthropological conceptions of culture on the way historians understand and employ the concept, felt important and worth wrestling with to me. I am now a graduate student, and this question, along with others that I encountered at the annual meeting, has stuck with me and often come up in the courses I am now taking. Attending the meeting as someone who had just completed his bachelor’s degree in history and had applied to graduate schools allowed me to see a snapshot of the historical profession today, to meet interesting people, learn about new and exciting projects in different areas of history, and to have fun while doing so.
The AHA annual meeting creates a space for historians at all levels of training and at various stages of their academic or nonacademic careers to come together. For students like me who see the study of history as their calling, the meeting offers an opportunity to engage with people from different backgrounds doing interesting work in all kinds of fields and to get a glimpse of the professional community we hope to join. For example, in addition to engaging with professional historians, I also had the opportunity to attend two panels on 19th-century US history—one which dealt with gender in Catholicism and another with race and borderlands—whose presenters were all current graduate students in PhD programs and who were working on projects in fields close to my own areas of interest. I also gained insight into the world of graduate studies in history, which I am just now beginning to step into. I was able to get a glimpse of possible avenues of work for history graduate students beyond academia. I was able to speak with representatives from the National Archives, National Park Service, and nonprofit organizations that employ historians of various educational backgrounds at the Career Fair, and everyone I met seemed very excited to talk to an undergraduate student about their line of work.
The annual meeting is also an excellent place for undergraduate students to explore the new directions in which historians are pushing the discipline. In addition to the panels mentioned above, I had the opportunity to attend interdisciplinary panels that allowed me to gain a sense of recent and emerging trends in historiographical theory and methodology. I also attended panels on pedagogical strategies in which historians introduced and discussed innovative ways to engage students with history in the classroom. Panels on pedagogy could be interesting for undergraduates interested in careers in primary and secondary education as well as in academia.
There were also a number of panels concerning historical questions of a timely nature. The panel on “Culture Wars” and another concerning democracy and immigration felt particularly pertinent in view of the general elections. The implications of the argument made by David Scott Fitzgerald and David Cook-Martin that democracies may be particularly inclined toward racist immigration policies were as disconcerting to me as Stephen Prothero’s argument that liberals win the culture wars was reassuring. The plenary session, which was open to the public, tackled an issue close to Atlanta—that of Confederate memorialization. A panel of distinguished scholars discussed the place of Confederate symbolism in history and of Confederate memorialization in America today. While the Confederate battle flag has been removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds and statues of some Confederate leaders have been moved from public places on college campuses, we were reminded that other monuments that celebrate the tragedies of history cannot be so easily moved. Georgia’s own Stone Mountain, site of a 76 by 158-foot bas-relief memorial to the leaders of the Confederacy and of the 1915 revival of the Ku Klux Klan, was mentioned at the session. As a result of the session, a friend and I felt inspired to go and see the memorial for ourselves. Confronting the ramifications of historical memory in this way touched me not only as an aspiring historian, but also as a member of a national and global community that must continually confront the past and its meanings in the present. Going forward in my pursuit of graduate studies, I am encouraged to be ever mindful of both the shadow which the past casts upon the present and the shadow which the present casts upon the past.
Attending the AHA annual meeting gave me a lot to think about—both concerning how historians write and wrestle with history, and my own aspirations to build a career studying and interpreting it. Undergraduates interested in attending the meeting may find it, as I did, as useful opportunity to get a feel for the community of scholars and professionals who make up the AHA’s membership and to also learn about the emerging trends and developments in historical inquiry. Above all, the experience left me profoundly excited to continue striving to build a career out of delving into the questions and quagmires of the human past.
James Rick received his BA in history and anthropology from Butler University in December 2015. He’s now pursuing a PhD in history at the College of William and Mary. His research interests include gender and the intellectual and cultural history of the 19th-century United States.
For information on the 2017 AHA annual meeting in Denver, please visit: https://www.historians.org/annual-meeting. We encourage faculty and undergraduates interested in coming to the meeting to take advantage of the AHA’s deeply discounted faculty/student group rate. For an additional fee of only $10 for each K–12, undergraduate, and graduate student, AHA members can bring students to the annual meeting. For more information, visit: https://www.historians.org/annual-meeting/registration